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The cinema clubs of Tunis: Art and resistance

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Story by

Andrea Olea

Translation by:

Neeraj Nagarkatti

CultureEU-TOPIA ON THE GROUNDEuromed Reporter: Tunisia.Euromed Reporter

Since their establishment in the 1960s, film clubs in Tunisia have been spaces of creative and intellectual freedom. They’re a breeding ground for trainee film-makers passionate about the seventh art as well as activists from across the left-wing spectrum- the opposition to the regimes that have ruled the country since its independence.

The Tunisian cap­i­tal's film of­fer­ings are con­fined to a hand­ful of rooms scat­tered away from Av­enue Bour­guiba, the main artery of Tunis. Le Mon­dial, Le Rio and Le Colisée are old colo­nial build­ings, sin­fully ap­peal­ing to the un­fa­mil­iar eye, yet sadly in­ad­e­quate for lovers of the sev­enth art. Cam­ou­flaged among them flows an­other stream: film clubs, the get­away from the Hol­ly­wood track, the sav­iours of Tunisian cin­ema and the refuge for a plethora of dif­fer­ent ac­tivists.

Until the Arab Spring sparked off here three years ago, peo­ple lived under an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime in which cen­sor­ship was chok­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion and crip­pling Tunisian cin­ema. Whether you like it or not, pol­i­tics per­me­ates every­thing in film clubs. This was the story be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion on 14 Jan­u­ary 2011 and now it is even more so.


"Too much pol­i­tics," em­pha­sises Amel Saadal­lah after a few sec­onds of thought, when asked why she founded Cinémadart, one of the first in­de­pen­dent clubs in the Fed­er­a­tion of Tunisian Cin­ema Clubs (FTCC). For the last seven years, every Tues­day, this no­madic space, lo­cated within walk­ing dis­tance of the Carthagin­ian Ruins, played all kinds of films which couldn’t find a place in the closed cir­cuit of na­tional film list­ings. For in­stance today, three short films made in Tunisia, aroused a heated cin­e­matic de­bate when the lights came back on. The abun­dance of horn-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, red lips, and berets that fill the room would make any­one think that were in an in­tel­lec­tual-bo­hemian-chic gath­er­ing in a Eu­ro­pean cap­i­tal. If it were not for the lan­guage, of course- Ara­bic in Tunisian di­alect, pep­pered with French words and ex­pres­sions. From her cin­ema seat, Amel lis­tens at­ten­tively to the dis­cus­sion be­tween the film di­rec­tors and the mot­ley mass of the pub­lic. Later on she tells me, "it some­times seems that the film is just an ex­cuse to dis­cuss other po­lit­i­cal is­sues. We want it to be the other way round." This girl with gen­tle man­ners and a com­bat­ive coun­te­nance be­lieves that film clubs have lost the essence of what they rep­re­sent, and she as­pires to re­move her­self from the '”ac­tivism” to focus on "the love of cin­ema, for cin­ema’s sake."

Of course, striv­ing to live the sev­enth art in a coun­try where the num­ber of fea­ture films pro­duced per year can be counted on one hand, and where there are lit­tle more than a dozen pro­jec­tion rooms in the back­ground, is an­other form of strug­gle. Fatma Bchini, pres­i­dent of the Tunis film club, the old­est in Tunisia, knows it only too well. "Buy­ing a cin­ema ticket in Tunisia is al­ready a drag,"ar­gues this 23-year-old med­ical stu­dent, who is also part of the Fed­eral Com­mit­tee of Film Clubs. Fatma talks pas­sion­ately about the work of the film clubs, and she is hope­ful that these places will play an im­por­tant role in the new Tunisia.

“We want to open film clubs for chil­dren, to cure their gen­er­a­tion's col­lec­tive am­ne­sia, to teach them to cre­ate and to build." Today, there are three times as many film clubs as there are rooms, re­marks Fatma proudly, "not a day goes by with­out the Fed­er­a­tion re­ceiv­ing a new ap­pli­ca­tion."


"They were so un­pleas­ant and strict, the League could tell they were cops," mocks Maher ben Khal­ifa, an in­te­gral part of this un­der­world since he first landed in a film club as a 7-year-old boy. He refers to the un­der­cover agents who reg­u­larly at­tended the meet­ings of his am­a­teur film-mak­ers club, not­ing down who said what.

Iron­i­cally, as they were ob­serv­ing closely, the pow­ers that be put up with these pock­ets of dis­sent, in part be­cause of their low vis­i­bil­ity among the bulk of the Tunisian pop­u­la­tion and partly as a strat­egy to save face in the eyes of West­ern democ­ra­cies. In any case, "re­gard­less of whether you take part, film clubs teach you to dis­cuss. And the de­bate is free from pol­i­tics. Here you learn to de­fend your ideas. And to com­mit to them," ex­plains Maher, who is a stu­dent of graphic de­sign.


Maher be­longs to the Tunisian Fed­er­a­tion of Am­a­teur Film­mak­ers (TFAF) and thanks to this, at the age of 17, he made his first short film, Kari for dogs, a spoof ad­vert, which, in­spired by the tor­ture of pris­on­ers at Abu Ghraib, ad­ver­tised dog food made of human flesh. Quite openly, he ad­mits that, at least on a tech­ni­cal level, his first foray into film was "some­thing of a dis­as­ter."

His ex­pe­ri­ence re­flects well on how this pro­fes­sion works in Tunisia: for a long time, the clubs were the only film school in the coun­try. Sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of di­rec­tors were trained under that set up, as well as an as­sort­ment of anony­mous cit­i­zens who sim­ply wanted to tell their story. Today Maher is part of the cen­tral com­mit­tee of the TFAF, and en­sures every­one is rep­re­sented, "from en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents to bak­ers and taxi dri­vers. It's sim­ple, we as­sume that every­one who wants to, should be able to make films," he as­serts, re­call­ing that film clubs have even seen the likes of min­is­ters from the Ben Ali régime.

When it comes to pro­duc­ing films with lim­ited re­sources, you draw upon the imag­i­na­tion and your DIY skills, pluck­ing ma­te­ri­als and ideas out of thin air. "I started my film ca­reer by steal­ing two cam­eras," says di­rec­tor Sami Tlili, with­out any major hang-ups. He is an­other film nut who went into di­rect­ing after set­ting up a film club in his home­town of Sousse.

Like any good am­a­teur film­maker, he scoffs at big bud­get films. "If a sin­gle screw goes miss­ing, it spreads panic and shoot­ing comes to a halt!” he mar­vels. His first film, a doc­u­men­tary ti­tled Cursed be the phos­phate, tells the story of the re­volts in the Gafsa min­ing basin in the spring of 2008, what many con­sider today to be the real heart of the Arab rev­o­lu­tions. "De­spite the hur­dles, it was worth it." On the al­ter­na­tive cir­cuit, we have been the only ones deal­ing with this type of issue," says Tlili, "In the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion we had, the regime was killing our dreams. Film helped us keep the dream alive."

This article is part of the Euromed Reporter project, conducted in partnership with I WATCH and Search For Commong Ground and supported by the Foundation Anna Lindh.

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Translated from Túnez Cinema Club: resistencia en la escena alternativa